To the happily uninitiated and blissfully naive there are two kinds of pink slips: one a scintillating bit of lingerie, the other the deflating note that employers tuck into the final pay envelopes of discharged employees. But to the quarter million hopelessly obsessed duplicate-bridge players in the U.S. the only important pink slip is a third type—the 5½-by-3½-inch paper reproduced on the next page that the American Contract Bridge League gives to the winners of the 6,000 tournaments it sanctions each week. The pink slip usually represents a small fraction of what the ACBL calls a master point, and the master point is threatening to replace the Cadillac as the most coveted status symbol in suburbia. Competing in 4,000 clubs from Belfast, Me. to Bellflower, Calif., an ever-increasing number of bridge players are ignoring expense, tension, manners and mores to chase pink slips with a fervor they once lavished on Martinis, Monopoly and the country club dance.
The game these master-pointers play is called bridge, though it actually bears little resemblance to that friendly old card contest conducted by the fireside amidst peanuts, conversation and bourbon on the rocks. In its most common form duplicate bridge consists of about eight tables of players. Each East-West pair is competing against every other East-West pair, while North-Souths are likewise attempting to beat each other. The cards are shuffled and dealt into hands only once, the hands then being placed in oblong duplicate boards that have printed on them who is vulnerable, the hand number and other stage-setting information. When a card is played the player places it in front of him instead of putting it in the center of the table as he would in ordinary bridge. Once the hand is finished each player puts his own cards back into the proper compartment in the board. The score is recorded on a sheet that is also placed in the board. After a fixed number of hands all East-West pairs move clockwise to the next table, while the hands are moved counterclockwise.
The result of this game of musical chairs with cards is that by a session's end every East-West pair has played the same hands. The tournament director tabulates all scores on a master sheet that shows, often embarrassingly, how each pair fared on each hand, as well as who won. There is also, of course, a North-South winner. Because everybody plays identical hands there is no luck of the deal, making duplicate a game where the smallest mistake is as obvious as a fullback's fumble. Hence, no peanuts, no conversation, no bourbon: just three exhausting hours of ulcer-producing, home-wrecking, ego-shattering tension.
In return for this evening of agony, assuming it occurs at an ACBL-sanctioned event, the winners get as little as .16 of a master point, the award at a small weekly event, or as much as 125 special red points for a national event. The ACBL dutifully records each member's master-point total and publishes the lists showing who has how many points. Thus, in a subtle way, the poorest player in the smallest club is competing for status not only with every other Junior Master (the rookies who have from one to 19 points) but with Charles Goren himself (a Life Master, he tops the list with 6,358 Vi points tonight, and who knows how many more by tomorrow morning).
The ACBL, which admits that it is the master point that changed tournament bridge from the avocation of the few into the passion of the many, stumbled into its grading system almost by accident. It was in the early '30s that the league officially recognized its first "Masters." It gave this title to the winners of national championships. This meant there were so few Masters that when they got together they virtually needed a fourth for bridge. Since this would hardly do, it was decided to give the winners of a few lesser tournaments something called master points. By winning three such points a player could become a Master. This system for conferring a title and prestige excited the country's top bridge players, and the ACBL soon realized it might increase interest at all levels of the game if the gimmick were simply expanded. More and more tournaments were recognized, and higher and higher went the number of points needed to qualify as a Master.
By the late '30s the ACBL knew it was holding a promotional grand slam, and it began to give away points, or fractions of points, at all of its tournaments. The league established a complicated system, which made the point award at tournaments proportionate to the level and numbers of competitors likely to be there. It also founded a superior point, called a red point, which could only be won in regional or national events where the competition was very tough. To attain certain exalted categories of Master, a player had to have red points in his competitive background.
With its grading system in order, the ACBL set its awards, eventually establishing the six classifications for players it has now. These begin with the Junior Masters, who have one point and get a most inauspicious white card to mark their achievement. There are 50,000 Junior Masters. Next come Masters, National Masters, Senior Masters, Advanced Senior Masters and, finally, Life Masters. There are 3,200 of these last, and they have 300 points or more, at least 30 of which are red points. They receive a glossy gold-tinted card, plus a lifetime ACBL membership, which saves them from paying league dues, $2 a year. It is a modest saving at best, since it is estimated that entry fees and travel costs cause even the best players to spend at least $20 for every point they win.
If spending big sums of money—and, incidentally, keeping up with Goren—is not necessarily a great American game, keeping up with the Joneses is, and it is on this level particularly that duplicate bridge has boomed. First, the holder of a master point automatically qualifies as a figure of awe in a neighborhood bridge game. He can and will join such a game with feigned condescension, acting like Sam Snead entering a Flag Day tournament at Happy Knoll. Once playing, he will be allowed to explain with cool erudition his own tactics to his rapt audience, and to tut-tut at the mistakes they have made. He will have, in short, a glorious chance to show off.
Second, the duplicate player has the constant opportunity to improve his status in his local bridge club's pecking order by getting more master points. He zealously attempts to achieve this, while every other club member is taking all possible measures to see that he does not succeed. The most avid pointsman will go so far as to hire professional partners for $25 to $100 a night to help him win. Duplicate thus becomes about as sociable as an off-tackle smash and as sporting as a zip-gun fight.
Yet the contestants in this national karate—with cards—are obviously having a wonderful time and wouldn't want things any other way, for they are competing now as they never have before. The ACBL has 10 times as many registered players as it did only 15 years ago. The number of sanctioned clubs has increased 25% in the last year. The league, smothering in a fallout of its own pink slips, has had to turn to IBM for a data-processing system that mechanically maintains the vital list of who is entitled to sneer at whom. (The ACBL got a panicky wire last week from a Dallas woman: "My child swallowed the card with my IBM number. Please telephone it collect today." She was anxious to register some newly won points.) The increase in play has even forced the ACBL, for speedier handling, to change one type of its reporting slips from the classic pink to white.